Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mary's Story

I hope you'll forgive a little flight of fancy this week. I'm taking a lot of artistic license with this sermon, trying to be inside Mary's head as she pours the perfume on Jesus' feet and dries them with her hair.

Yes, I could have talked about the meaning of this and the significance of that. Others have done so, and better than i could ever hope to. What strikes me about this passage is the absolute abandon with which Mary worships Jesus.

Please offer comments and constructive criticism. Even if your name is Ken Silva, such comments are welcome.

(Thanks MissBossyPants for the help!)

Isaiah 43:16-21

Thus says the LORD,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

This is the Word of the Lord.

What a strange sight it must have been, even after so many days, seeing him lying there on that couch, eating with his friend Jesus. Laughing, conversing, listening, engaging the other disciples in discussion... you know, just being Lazarus, same as he had always been Lazarus. Look at him, telling that same old joke he always tells about the peddler and the housewife, laughing at the punchline as if he'd never heard it before!

Everyone else always laughs, not because the joke is still funny, but because you can't be around Lazarus and not laugh, not enjoy life just a little bit more.

Mary stood in the corner, ostensibly to be close at hand in case one of the dinner guests needed anything... but in reality someone could have shattered dinnerware at her feet and she wouldn't have flinched. Martha, busily serving the dinner, no longer minded. Truth be told, she would rather have dropped everything and spent all her time clinging to her brother Lazarus, just to experience him being here, just to remind herself that it was real.

Lazarus, their brother, had been dead. Not “dead” as in “spiritually lost,” like the Prodigal Son, no. Really, permanently dead.

The three of them, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, they had known for awhile who Jesus was, and why he had come. When Lazarus fell ill, the first thing they did was send for Jesus, to ask him to come and heal his friend. Days passed, and no Jesus. Then, no more Lazarus. Just like that, the anchor that kept Martha from working herself into the ground and Mary from flitting off like a butterfly, gone. Entombed. Dead.

For four days Mary and Martha had moved around their house like ghosts, like zombies, doing what had to be done, but feeling nothing. At some point, through the fog, Martha told Mary that Jesus was here, and was asking for her. Mary remembered weeping at his feet. She remembered Jesus' tears.

She remembered the stone being rolled away, and everyone recoiling at what they expected to smell.

She remembered Jesus saying the silliest thing she'd ever heard, yelling at an open tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” and the impossible, the unbelievable, the overwhelming joy of Lazarus doing just that!

She knew what that had cost Jesus. It lay there, like a rock in the pit of her stomach, the knowledge that, even now, the Temple leaders were plotting his death. Such a display of authority, such a demonstration that even death could not defeat the Christ – and rather than fall at his feet, as she had, rather than hailing him as God's anointed, their lust for power and dedication to their own greed and grandeur had driven them to a thirst for blood. And now Jesus was less than two miles from their power base, Jerusalem. She had heard some of the men talking, had heard Lazarus making sure that Jesus knew what it meant, this trip to Jerusalem.
He was signing his death warrant, walking right into the jaws of the beast.

Of course he knew. Everyone knew what it meant. Jesus had known what it would mean when he had the stone rolled away, but he did it anyway. And because of Jesus, she had Lazarus back.

How do you say “thank you” for something like that? Oh, she had said the words, over and over so many times. But she owed him more than thanks. She owed him everything.

It was almost as if she were watching someone else do it. She walked to her room, where she had kept, hidden away, that jar of spikenard. She had bought it a few weeks back, to pour on Lazarus' body, but the tomb had been sealed too quickly.

She wouldn't be too slow this time.

Made from an extract of the roots of a plant which grew only in the Himalayas, spikenard was stunningly expensive – the jar held enough to pay a years' wages to a common laborer. Thousands of dollars, but Mary didn't hesitate. Money meant nothing, dignity meant nothing, propriety meant nothing, not in the face of the gift that Jesus had given her.

As she entered the dining room, she did something that women never did in public: she let down her hair. Kneeling by the couch where Jesus reclined, she broke open the jar and poured the contents on his feet, and wiped them dry with her hair.

The weight of the shocked silence pressed in on her. No one understood what she was doing, no one understood the depth of her gratitude, the compulsion to worship at the feet of the One she knew – she knew – to be the Messiah.

The fragrance of the spikenard filled every corner of the house, thick enough to cut, as she looked into his eyes – a bold move, but there was nothing left of propriety now, was there? – someone was protesting, and loudly. One of the Apostles. It didn't matter, she could see that Jesus understood.

Less than two miles – that's all that's left between Jesus and the night where he will wash the feet of his disciples – all of his disciples – even the feet of Judas. Less than two miles separate Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane. Less than two miles from the trial, the torture, the scourge, the crown of thorns, the cross. Less than two miles from the cold, dark, silent, airless tomb.

What should our faith cost us?

What did faith cost Mary?

Mary probably didn't understand what Jesus' death would mean for humanity. She didn't understand any of the six or more doctrines of atonement, didn't understand the weight of sin that Jesus would bear on that cross, probably had no concept, even with Lazarus sitting right there across the table, that Jesus would conquer death once, for all. She didn't know that the redeeming work of this man, whose feet she knelt at, would permeate every nook and cranny, every time and place of creation like the perfume that still hung in the air of that house. All she knew is that no amount of money, no level of dignity, no expectation of social propriety was as important as this man, this teacher, this Lord, this Messiah.

The theology, the doctrine, the nuances meant nothing. Mary had seen what salvation looks like. She had seen salvation as it walked into the sunlight from the open tomb door. She had seen the face of salvation when she loosed the rag over Lazarus' eyes.

Our time? Our treasures? Our dignity? Our social standing? Does any of this really matter in the face of the Cross?

What should our faith cost us?


  1. Beautiful, John! Thank you. You're such a blessing.

  2. I like how you brought in our contemporary theological trappings at the end. I think you could add something else to that to remind the congregation that the atonement isn't about church but about salvation.

  3. I'm going to share your sermon with our Gathering today, if that is ok with you.

  4. I am honored, Pastor Nar. Please let me know how it goes.

  5. In other words, Mary knew how to worship Jesus!